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The Future Is Arriving Now: A Young Woman Finds Out What Its Like To Drive
for Uber
Katie McGrath

The Pittsburgh Uber office isnt glamorous as one would expect a hot
start-ups office to be. Its on Meyran Avenue in Pittsburghs Oakland
neighborhood, in retail space formerly belonging to NEBBY BEAUTY CARE !
who used to advertise selling REAL HAIR !
I almost pass the office because there is nothing marking its presence,
save for a small white rectangular sign bearing the UBER logo posted in the
corner of the window. It blends in with the cream-colored curtains drawn shut
to eerily cover the store-fronts large picture windows.
I open the door and step right into a queue that snakes around the
doorframe and opens up into the office, although Im unsure what Im waiting
for.
This is Uber, right? I tap the man ahead of me on the shoulder. He
looks about thirty, Middle-Eastern, and is dressed in acid-wash jeans, a grey
Hollister hoodie, and bright white sneakers. The fluorescent overhead light
bounces off of his chunky, intimidating black wristwatch as he goes to pull
out one of his earphones. He spins around; his dark eyes open wide for a
moment before settling into a narrow squint.
Yeah. He grunts. More men ahead of him turn to match a face to my
voice. I am out of place; noticeably shorter, younger, and female.

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You here cause of that inspection sticker? He asks.
No, Im here to turn in my insurance letter to start driving. I keep my
voice level, in an attempt to hold my own.

You know you can do that on the app, right?

Yeah. You can do everything on the app.

For the technology-illiterate, Uber is a ride-sharing app built for Apple


and Android. Their app allows users to select their location on a map and
connects them with a driver in the area, showing the cars ETA and exact
location as it approaches. Uber synchronizes with credit and debit cards,
making the payment part of the ride an afterthought. Taking a taxi and an
Uber may cost around the same, but not having to hand over cash or card at
the end makes Uber feel free, and glamorous.
Uber operates in 54 countries around the world, but its top five markets are
DC, San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles. In each of its
largest cities, Uber was doing over 100,000 trips per week in December of
2013.

The line advances so everyone sways forward, and I step through the
doorframe and into the office. Its about the size of an apartment living room,

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completely empty save for a folding table with a mac desktop, some grey
folding chairs, and a lone cubicle divider with a poorly-written sign reading
NO MORE PLACARDS. Four posters that look like theyve been printed on
computer paper are the only things taped to the walls, reminding drivers
about peak hours and ways to earn 5 star ratings (no cologne, no talking
loud, no air freshener). Theres also a clock, which the one employee behind
the folding table darts his eyes impatiently towards every few minutes. Hes
dressed in jeans, lace-up Vans sneakers, and a pink button-up that isnt very
buttoned-up, because it shows off his chest hair. There isnt heat in the office
and its mid-February, so hes wearing a black pea coat, completing his fratstar-turned-start-up-employee uniform.
I havent been to the office before, because all of the hiring takes place
online or through the app. And its almost terrifyingly simple. Once youve
entered your social security number and basic information, a third-party
company called Raiser runs an extensive background check. Assuming you
pass, you watch a sixteen-minute training video and upload photos of your
license, insurance, state inspection sticker, and owners card, to be reviewed
by a corporate team member. And thats it.
The room is empty and chilly. I pull out a book instead of my phone,
which seems a little silly in a tech start-up office, but I do it anyway. I dont
make it past a few lines before I lose focus and look around the room at all of
the other drivers waiting for their turn. Most are in their thirties or forties,
some with children, but most are alone, and most are men. From

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eavesdropping on their conversations with Frat Star, I can deduce a lot of
them are there because their state inspection stickers are about to expire
and theyre having trouble uploading them.
Except for Frank. Somewhere in his sixties and somewhat overweight,
Frank hoists himself up from the folding chair slowly and waddles across the
room to the makeshift desk. Hes wearing what can only be described as
grandpa-jeans, grandpa sneakers, and a navy and gold track jacket. A large
plastic button the size of a fist is pinned to his collar, with a photo of a
smiling high school girl in a cheerleading uniform inside. I hope that is his
granddaughter.
Frat Star greets him by name, asking what he can do for him this time.
Frank is confused because his app will no longer allow him to go online and
accept rides. Frat Star gently explains that the app requires a software
update before it can work again, to which Frank dramatically throws his
hands up in the air and scoffs, cursing technology and all these young
folks.
When its my turn, based upon a mutually understood but not spoken
order among all people waiting, I cross the room and sit down in front of Frat
Star, handing him my documents.

I know I could have uploaded this on the app, but I want to drive
tonight and figure you approving it will be faster I tell him. He lays my proof
of insurance flat on the table before standing up to hover over the document

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with an iPad. One quick snap and its in the system, et voil, Im an Uber
driver.

I leave the office and walk down the street towards my car, a modest
cobalt blue Hyundai Elantra. I dont feel nearly official enough to start
driving, as if Ive missed some employee meeting or training session. But
aside from that sixteen-minute video, there is no meeting or training.
All there is, is the Uber Partner app, available for download only once
youve entered all of your information. I click the go online button in the
upper left corner of the app, and a local map appears with a black town car
icon showing my current location. It feels pretty anti-climactic. Have I done
this right? Im sitting in my parked car with the radio on, should I drive
around? Or just sit here?
I choose to drive around, and turn the corner just as I hear an urgent
chiming come from my phone. I look down to see a trip request, a zoomed-in
map with a circle orbiting around the location and a timer quickly depleting.
Panicked, I tap the screen and begin following the directions to my riders
location a few streets away.

***
Before Uber, San Francisco had a taxi problem. Stranded on the streets
after last call was a problem all too familiar to many San Franciscans. Youd
call a taxi and hope that it showed up forty-five minutes later. But, thought

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Garrett Camp, Ubers co-founder, what if you could hire your own private
driver? Camp and his co-founder Travis Kalanick were hanging out in Paris for
Loic and Geraldine LeMeurs 2008 LeWeb Conference, throwing around ideas
and projects to tackle next. Camp had recently sold StumbleUpon to Ebay,
and Kalanick had completed a tour with Akamai after selling them Red
Swoosh in 2007. So what was next?
They stayed up until five in the morning with good drinks and music,
dreaming up their next big project when Camp threw out an idea. What if
they split the cost of a driver, a Mercedes S Class, and a parking spot in a
garage, and built an iPhone app to get around San Francisco whenever they
wanted?
In March 2009, Camp got to work. What would this iPhone app look
like? Where would the drivers come from? Kalanick joined on in Summer
2009 as Ubers Chief Incubator. His job was to temporarily run the company,
get the product to prototype, find a General Manager, and guide the
company through to Ubers San Francisco launch. Think Erlich Bachman from
HBOs Silicon Valley.
In a typical Startup fashion, Kalanick head-hunted for a General
Manager in a non-traditional way: he took to Twitter. Looking 4
entrepreneurial product mgr/biz-dev killer 4 a location based service.. prelaunch, BIG equity, big peeps involvedANY TIPS?? he posted on January
5th, 2010 at 7:14. Heres a tip. Email me :) graves.ryan[at]gmail.com a
young GE employee from Chicago named Ryan Graves tweeted back. Two

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months later he was UberCabs first employee, and would run a brief stunt as
CEO.
With a team assembled and a prototype named UberCab, they were on
the road by January 2010. A test run in New York City consisted of three
drivers cruising around the SOHO, Chelsea, Union Square area in Manhattan
with a handful of team members test-driving the system. Everything was
looking good, and UberCab was ready for the public.
UberCab officially launched in San Francisco on July 5th, 2010, making
headlines for their innovative on-demand car service app. Rapidly gaining
popularity, UberCab closed out a $1.25 million angel financing round in
October 2010. Of course nothing brilliant comes without its fair share of
critiques and leaches trying to squeeze some money out of the startup. Later
that month, UberCab received a Cease-and-Desist order from the San
Francisco Metro Transit Authority & the Public Utilities Commission of
California for seeming to operate as a cab company, without proper licensing
to do so. This would only be the first of many lawsuits the young company,
then dropping the cab part from their name, would face.
***

According to the map, Ive arrived at my riders destination. I tap the


black button at the bottom of the screen that sends a messageyour Uber
is arriving now, to the passenger, and I check the time9:15 pm. Ubers
training video suggests that drivers refrain from calling their riders, but if

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contact is necessary, a text is the way to go. One of Ubers selling points is
the power of doing everything through the app, and making a phone call
defeats this purpose. My guess is that Uber is well aware of millennials
disdain for talking on the phone.
As I wait outside, I cautiously play around on the app, afraid to press
the wrong button as I would to drop a newborn baby. The user interface for a
driver looks similar to that of a rider. The aesthetic is the samesimple
black, grey, and blue, with a map of your surroundings. The info button on
the top right of the screen gives the riders name, rating, and phone number
which isnt their actual numberbut more on that later.
Knuckles hit my passenger window and I jump up, ungluing my eyes
from the screen. A young guy named Kyle opens the door, stooping down to
ask if this was Uber. He gets in the passenger seat as his friends climb in the
back. Theyre college kids, and theyre drunk.
Wait, wait, wait, youre our Uber driver? One of the strangers asks
from my backseat. I admit to them that they are my first passengers, as I
fumble with the app. Its pretty self-explanatory and a simple process, but I
hesitate as I slide the button to begin the trip. Directions to Hofbruhaus in
South Side pop up on the screen. Do I just begin driving these strangers
there? Is that how this works? Chauffeuring strangers in your own car is just
as weird as you imagine it to be, although you get used to it eventually.
Being friendly and engaging works to your advantage, unless you enjoy
sitting in silence a foot away from a stranger for ten minutes. I cover roughly

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the same questions each ride: are you in school? What do you do? Where are
you from? How do you like Pittsburgh? It always catches me off guard when a
rider is surprised that I am a student. I think most of them assume that I
drive for Uber full-time. I tend to drive the same shifts, although I can set my
own hours at a moments notice, -- all I have to do is login, or logout.
Thursday or Friday late-afternoon into the evening is always busy, and
always entertaining.
For privacy purposes, and to keep stalkers at bay, Uber gives each of
their drivers a random phone number that is used as the in-between for
drivers and their riders. If I am signed online and have been assigned a
passenger, I can contact them via that number, and visa versa. However
once the ride is over and Ive clicked slide to end trip, that phone number
will no longer connect me to that rider. In theory, the burner number sounds
fantastic, but in practice, it sucks. I learned the hard way when I dropped a
rider, Mara, off at the Manor theatre in Squirrel Hill. Mara and I connected
instantly, talking about art, writing, and traveling. She had a close friend
working in Paris, and knew of a few job openings, which she graciously
offered to connect me with. She was running late for a film and didnt have
time to exchange information, so I said, Dont worry! I have your number,
its in the app! We said goodbye and agreed to talk soon. As she closed the
door and ran inside, I went to text her my contact information. The text, of
course, bounced back, as it was my first week out on the streets and I had
yet to become completely adjusted to the system. I had learned my lesson.

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In February 2011, Uber had investors biting at their ankles, and raised
an $11 million Series A led by Benchmark Capital. With such success in San
Francisco, Uber infiltrated New York City streets, soon followed by Boston,
Chicago, and Seattle. Sure these cities had cab systems, but much like San
Francisco, the people wanted more.
What Uber offered that other cabs didnt, was a Gods Eye view of traffic in
its cities. Using heat maps, Uber is able to measure expected wait times and
where demand is highest, allowing them to send more drivers to those areas.
Uber stands out and works because, like most successful apps, it
adapts to your lifestyle. Uber offers five different ride choices for different
prices UberX, UberTaxi, UberBlack, UberSUV, and UberLUX.
UberX is the budget-friendly option that we have in Pittsburgh. It allows
everyday drivers to get behind the wheel and chauffer people around on
their own schedule. UberTaxi is helpful in cities like New York who already
have a vibrant taxi culture. For a $2 fee on top of the fare, Uber will hail the
cab for you. UberBlack is Ubers signature car, chauffeuring you around the
city in luxury. UberSUV accommodates larger parties, and UberLUX is a
pricier option with flashier cars to match.

***

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Meeting a ton of strangers is simultaneously the best and worst part of
driving for Uber. You never know if your next passenger is going to be
introverted or obnoxious; sober or drunk; a $5 ride or a $55 ride. Ive driven
some of Pittsburghs most dynamic characters, which is how I ended up
becoming friends with internationally-known rapper Wiz Khalifahs
bodyguard.
Big Lonn is, as his name suggests, big. He towers over you like a bear
on hind legs, although he doesnt bite. A former gang member turned
martial-arts enthusiast, Lonnie Howard travels the world with his cousin,
rapper Wiz Khalifah. In between tours, Lonnie was home in Pittsburgh and
ended up in my backseat.

Outside of the Heady Gallery in Pittsburghs South Side neighborhood,


Big Lonn shuffled into my car with a goofy smile and glassy, drooping eyes.
He had come from work, he said, installing a game room in the Heady
Gallery, an upscale glass smoke shop, and I was driving him home.
We talked about Pittsburghs changing landscape, both physically and
socially. He talked of his darker past involving alcohol and gangs, and of his
transformation into a level-headed, motivated entrepreneur with an affinity
for taekwondo.
As the ride comes to an end and weve compared favorite Biggie songs
and our picks for best pizza in Pittsburgh, it dawns on me that Im being paid
for this. Ive been at work, and havent even left my car.

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Sources:
http://blog.uber.com/2010/12/22/ubers-founding/
http://techcrunch.com/gallery/a-brief-history-of-uber/slide/34/
http://www.businessinsider.com/uber-revenue-rides-drivers-and-fares-2014-11
http://www.geekwire.com/2014/uber-adds-1-safe-rides-fee-passengers/
http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,2110985_2342191,00.html
http://time.com/money/3397919/uber-taxis-san-francisco/
http://blog.uber.com/2010/12/22/1-1-3/